Why former investigator expects long search for answers in Propane Lafortune blast

Bodies of three workers recovered from explosion site

Why former investigator expects long search for answers in Propane Lafortune blast
Explosion at Propane Lafortune (photo: Michel Varin)

The bodies of three workers have been recovered after an explosion at a fuel distribution company north of Montreal on Thursday. Their families want to know what happened, but one former investigator with Ontario’s Ministry of Labour says it will likely be a long time before they get the answers they’re looking for.

“Everybody's worried right now, and they're looking for information, but they're not getting any answers. And they may not get answers for a little while until some of this clears up,” says Kevin Brown, who is now the CEO of Cobalt Safety Consulting. 

While investigators sift through the ash and rubble at Propane Lafortune in St-Roch-de-l’Achigan, a special mass was held on Sunday to support the families of the deceased workers.

The blast happened shortly after 11 o’clock Thursday morning, and while the cause remains unclear, CTV News is reporting experts are investigating the possibility that a truck inside a garage exploded.

Emergency workers were not able to access the site for much of the day because of the fire, which took a team of 50 firefighters all day to put out. It took five days to find the bodies of the victims, with the search being complicated by heavy snow, according to a police spokesperson.

Quebec’s workplace health and safety board, CNESST, dispatched two investigators to the site. But Brown says because the emergency responders spent days searching for the workers, the CNESST investigators would have faced delays.

“Everybody wants answers, but it does take time,” says Brown, who points out everyone, from fire and police officials, to CNESST investigators, are under immense pressure to provide those answers, “but everything is a process here and at this point, it's not a rush.”

Now that the bodies have been recovered the focus will shift to searching for what triggered the blast and why. Brown says examining explosion sites is particularly challenging, because evidence is scattered, burned, and in some cases may no longer be present.

“When you have extensive damage in an explosion, the answers sometimes are a little harder to find,” says Brown, who points out there is also a heightened level of emotion because of the family run nature of the business.

“These accidents are very personal to those employers, and to those other families that are involved, too. There's heartache and tragedy on both sides,” says Brown, who suggests the public shouldn’t be quick to lay blame, “we always kind of want to say, well, it's the employer, but the employer is just as involved in the emotions as everybody else.”

The Lafortune family emailed a statement to the Canadian Press saying it is fully cooperating with authorities.

"We are deeply upset by this event and we are monitoring the situation closely," the statement said. "This is the first time in 60 years that our company has experienced such an ordeal. Our hearts go out to our employees, their families and anyone who may be affected by this difficult situation."

Brown points out it will also be emotionally difficult for the CNESST investigators who “have to go and see things that people shouldn't really see.”

And while public pressure for answers will only increase over time, Brown says patience is imperative. He points to the explosion at Eastway Tank, Pump & Meter in Ottawa last January.  It took Ontario’s Ministry of Labour nearly a year to lay charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and both local police and the Ontario Fire Marshall are still investigating that incident.

 Brown says while public pressure will be high, people need to know every investigative body is working around the clock, “to find the answers so that this never happens again.”